The Japanese Etiquette of Bowing

The Importance of Etiquette in Japan

Proper etiquette is strongly and deeply embedded in the culture of the Japanese people. Honor, manners, and respect are among the tenets that these people live by. How to treat others well is a part of what they learn in school. There are social behaviors which are expected from every individual and the degree of the relationship between two people shall dictate how etiquette shall vary as well.

Throughout the history of the country, there are traditional attitudes and behaviors which have been passed from generations to generations. Although there had been significant development over the past centuries, proper etiquette for the Japanese has changed insignificantly.

There are proper manners expected out of almost every detail in the daily lives of the Japanese. This includes eating, bathing, gift-giving, and even bowing. These are usually taught from a child’s young age and are used until the individual becomes an adult.

There are certain attitudes which are common in a region in Japan which may not exist elsewhere. This is why it is important to do some research about the travel destination whenever a vacation is being planned. It is through these customs that citizens in Japan gain their harmony and it is also through these customs that travelers learn to be one with the locals and their culture.

Etiquette is observed in almost every aspect of their lives. For instance, they observe proper etiquette with bathing where the order of bathing happens by seniority. In families with small tubs or small baths, the eldest male always takes a bath first. There is also proper etiquette observed for food. It is bad manners to transfer food from chopstick to chopstick. This is because of the fact that family members use this as a means of handling their dead family member’s bones. When eating, it is considered polite to slurp noodles as a means of showing enjoyment with the food.

There is also proper etiquette observed in business. There are proper ways to which a business card can be distributed. There are also important manners to remember when being introduced to another individual. In meetings, there are certain behaviors to observe either when watching or delivering a presentation.

On top of these, there are certain proper manners to be observed for events like festivals and celebrations. For example, it is considered rude to pour a drink only for one’s self. It is also quite a good habit to pour a drink for a person of higher rank. Also, for large events like those summer festivals spent throughout the days of August every year, it is important to act with decency while wearing traditional wear.

By elmarte74 [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The Japanese Bowing Meaning

There are different reasons why the Japanese bow and it involves a wide range of expressions. This particular gesture is common in many oriental countries in East Asia and is believed to be a custom that does not exist elsewhere.

Some say that a bow is a form of respectable greeting that does not involve touching. It is believed that it is through the touching of hands that diseases easily spread. Furthermore, since Japan and a lot of other oriental countries are quite conservative touching hands between genders of no relation is frowned upon especially during the earlier times. So, how else can these people show their respect without the proper handshake?

For the Western culture, a bow is a form of curtsy to a person of higher position like royalty. However, it is not every day that a common person meets royalty. Whereas in Japan, bowing is a part of their daily lives.

A Japanese Handshake

Despite the fact that the Japanese are particular with etiquette and manners, it does not mean that they are not adaptive. The Japanese still do handshakes when they are speaking with or meeting with non-Japanese people. Often times, they give handshakes when meeting another person who is not familiar with the Japanese customs.

On the other hand, there are cases when the Japanese bow becomes combined with a handshake. Normally this happens when a handshake is provided after the bowing. Sometimes, they are given simultaneously. This, on the other hand, is a difficult thing because eye contact is considered rude when doing a bow.

Because of this, it might be a great idea to do research when attempting to perform a Japanese custom. Since they are quite understanding with individuals who are not familiar with their culture, not giving a bow might be less complicated. It will also save a person from possible criticism and misunderstanding.

The Japanese Bowing Customs

Japanese Bowing Greetings

Bowing comes with many purposes. One of these is greeting. For the Japanese, it is common for them to give a little bow or head tilt whenever they see or greet a friend or an acquaintance. They also use the same expression as a means of saying goodbye. This is their casual form of greeting. For the formal version of this bow, a full bow is often given especially when there is a meeting between a person of higher rank with another person of a lower rank.

Another use of the bow is during the introduction, both casual and formal. Unlike the greeting which simply involves a head tilt, an introduction bow is a partial bow which includes the upper body. What is interesting about this is that a 30-degree bow is for meeting people of the same rank and a 45-degree bow is for very important people.

Oftentimes, restaurants and convenience stores greet their customers not only with a bow but also with a lively greeting. This is quite a common practice in Japan. So, when traveling to the country for the first time it might be a good thing to prepare one’s self with the possible frequency of bowing.

Japanese Bowing Thank you

Bowing as a form of thanks is probably one of the common uses of bowing. In more of its casual uses, this usually involves a shallow bow of the head similar to a greeting. These are for simple scenarios like opening a door for an elderly, lending a hand at the grocery store, similar events.

What is good about the Japanese culture is that they bow even to the animals they take care of. For instance, a caretaker at a zoo will bow down to the animal as a sign of respect and humility. Another type of bow would be the bow of gratitude which is often a casual form of bowing as well.

Japanese Bowing Apology

Bowing in Japan is often used in expressing apologies. Apology bows usually vary depending on the depth of the expression. There are mild apologies, regular apologies, and serious apologies.

For instance, a mild apology usually involves a 10-degree bow. This is used for minor offenses like when accidentally bumping into someone at a dining table. It is often given to strangers or even passers-by in the event that a simple or minor incident has been caused.

A regular apology, on the other hand, is a 45-degree bow which involves not only the head but the upper body as well. These are usually given to individuals of authority like a teacher or an employer for offenses that has caused trouble at work or in school.

Then, a serious apology usually involves a deep kneeling bow that touches the forehead to the floor. This is done by individuals who have done serious offenses to another person. It is a very formal apology and when done the receiving end has no other options but to accept. It is a sign that a person giving this kind of apology has completely forsaken his or her image in behalf of the receiver.  

The Proper Bowing Technique

A bow, for many oriental cultures, is believed to be a person’s way of showing a declaration of lowering one’s defenses. It involves exposing one’s head and back for possible physical trauma – this is somewhat a sign of defencelessness. Also, it is a means of accepting one’s status where an individual will put himself in a much vulnerable position when meeting a person of a higher class or rank.

This is why there are a variety of forms of bowing, something that not many foreign travelers are familiar with and often do wrong. For instance, there is a simple head tilt which is done for greetings, simple gratitude, and simple apologies.

However, there are bows as well that include the upper body when titling. There is a 10-degree bow which is often used for regular apologies and introductions. There is also a 45-degree bow which is used for many serious apologies and when being introduced to a person of a higher rank. Lastly, there are kneeling bows which are used for very serious apologies involving major crimes and incidents. This serious apology is often called as the Dogeza and there are cases when they are called saikeirei which literally means “respectful bow”.

The question is, how are these bows to be done? The first thing to remember is that eye-contact is not involved when bowing with the upper body. Not only is it awkward, it is also often considered as rude by many. Often times, the person of a lower rank is to bow much longer than the other as a sign of humility. A bow is held usually for 5 to 15 seconds depending on the gesture’s purpose.

Another thing to remember is to keep both hands at the sides and keep the back straight when giving a titled upper body bow. Keep the line of the neck straight with the line of the back.

By elmarte74 [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Lastly, when giving a kneeling bow. It is important to keep the feet tucked firmly behind, hands positioned forward with palms down before leaning in and putting one’s forehead to the floor. There are seating bows as well, which are called as seiza. This is often given during funerals or even in tea ceremonies.

Interesting Trivia about Japanese Bowing Culture

Japanese Bowing Emoticon

Bowing is one of the Japanese customs that many foreigners in the West are familiar with. Although they are unfamiliar with how these are properly used and which type of bow is appropriate for a certain scenario, they are pretty much aware of the origin and purpose of a Japanese bow.

So popular are these kinds of gestures that mobile applications and standard keyboards have included it in their sets of keys and emoticons. Both Apple and Android operating systems have included the Japanese bow in their collection.

Japanese Bowing Funny trivia

In Japanese etiquette classes, there are signs that teach individuals how to properly do bows. The point of these illustrations is to show how different kinds of bows are properly done. These are photographs and illustrations that measure and show proper angle and line of the back. Although this is an actual custom in Japan, a lot of foreign travelers find this unusual because it will be difficult to distinguish the angle of bowing in actual. Questions like: “How can a 30 degree and 45-degree bow be distinguishable?” are common queries from foreigners.

The Japanese Bowing Deer of Nara

The Sika deer is one of the most popular species of deer in the world. It is located in Nara, a prefecture more than 400 kilometers away from Tokyo. These kinds of deer are very interesting because of their abilities to return a bow. They are widely known by tourists as the bowing deer of Nara because they reply with a bow when they are bowed to.

Often, tourists are given Shika senbei which are known as deer cookies which are fed to them whenever they bow. On the other hand, no matter how cute this may be a bow of a deer is a means of attack. Whenever they see humans do their bows, they will assume that this is an attacking stance. Therefore, they may do the same stance and attack.